A History of Women in Sport: Part 1

I want to leave the recent bit of Internet drama behind for a bit (don’t worry, it’s not over) and post an excerpt from The Women’s Book Vol 2 (which will deal with training) on The History of Women in Sport.  Since it’s nearly 11 pages, I am going to divide it into two parts.  Today I will look at the involvement, development and other aspects of women in sport from the turn of the century up until the start of the modern era and will finish next week with the modern era and beyond.


Chapter 1: A Brief History of Women in Sport

In Volume 1 of this book, I addressed at least briefly that, for the majority of time sports have been contested, men have made up the majority of both competitors and coaches (it’s also likely that they were the primary audience as well). Practically this means that the majority of athletes and coaches (and probably spectators) have been men which means that the approaches taken to training, diet, etc. have primarily come from work with or on men. This was used to examine in some detail issues of physiology and research in order to make the point that women cannot be treated as nothing more than little men in this regard.

Since this book is oriented more specifically to training, I want to start by looking in somewhat more detail at this topic, and the changes that have occurred over the 120 some odd year in terms of women’s involvement in and acceptance in sport. Let me make it clear that I am no historian and will not attempt to be comprehensive in this regard as I am sure others have done much more thorough examinations of the topic. Rather I want to look at some of the overall changes that have occurred over time along with some of the driving forces behind them.

For much of the discussion, I will be focusing on those changes that occurred during the 20th century as this represents the grand majority of the time that is relevant (if I’m honest, it’s also the time when the most readily available history) exists. At least in broad strokes I will also look at some of the more current changes that have occurred.

A great deal of the information will examine changes that have occurred in Olympic involvement as this tends to be representative of global sport as a whole (1). I will also include information about the changes that occurred in America specifically as I think they probably broadly represent the changes that have been occurring in non-Socialist, non-Communist Western countries. As needed, I will mention specific countries or exceptions to the overall trends. In many cases, I will also look at some of the forces that were driving the changes that occurred (or did not occur in some cases).

Women in Sport Part 1: The Turn of the 20th Century

Throughout the majority of the 1800’s, sport was considered almost exclusively the domain of men. Early German competitions allowed no women and only a handful would be involved in sports such as bicycle racing, swimming, parachuting or ski jumping (I cannot begin to explain these last two). They assuredly were not accepted in sport on any real level and were too much of a minority to be representative of much.

At the turn of the 19th century came the creation of the modern Olympic games by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. In attempting to revive the earlier Greek Olympics, he considered it a completely male affair and it should go as no surprise that exactly zero women were present during the games except to crown the winners. At the next two games, women made up 1.7% and 0.9% of the athletes respectively and women would represent no more than 3% of the total athletes by 1920. In most cases, the women who were competing were either citizens of the host country, or came from Great Britain, which had had the longest sporting tradition to date. Even then, women were limited to competing in sports that did not involve “visible exertion”.

During the 1920’s, the realities of World War I would cause huge sociological changes due to the necessity for women to take on traditional “male” jobs to support the war effort. This would include the right to vote and, along with other changes, led to a greater push for women’s involvement in sport, at least in certain countries (in others, there was still significant resistance to the idea). Germany was one exception, encouraging sporting clubs to create women’s sections. A women’s sporting movement would also develop in France during this time. Of some importance, it was during these years that the first women’s athletic championships were organized.

Including the “unfeminine” track and field events, the Women’s World Games were held in 1921, 1922 and 1923 and organizations dedicated to women’s sports would be created during this time. A Women’s Olympic Games was even held in 1922, 1926, 1930 and 1934 although it was not officially associated with the Olympics and would ultimately have to give the name up. But the mere existence of these games not only showed that women had the capacity for high performance sport but gave its organizing body (called FIFSA, check this) a way to exert pressure over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to advocate for greater involvement of women.

During this time, De Coubertin and others still maintained that women should be excluded from the Olympic games but this had already become a losing battle. Women’s fencing and gymnastics had already been added and a limited number of track and field events would be added in 1928 (I’ll come back to this below). Controversy erupted at this games when many women were reported to have collapsed near the end of the 800m race. Most likely this was due to inadequate training (at the time the idea of training for sport was more or less considered cheating) but it was still deemed scandalous and unaesthetic. This event would be used as “proof” that women were simply not suited to sports or competition. Even with increasing involvement, women would make up no more than 4.5-8.5% of the total athletes at the Olympic games during this time.

Of some interest is that, during this same time, an entirely separate sporting event called the Worker’s World games occurred in Germany. This was organized by a socialist sporting federation and would include both gymnastics and track and field. In 1937, an Alternative Olympic Games would also be held in protest of the official Olympic Games. It’s poster was of a muscular woman throwing a discus and shows how much cultural norms and acceptance of women in sport varied even at this time.

Even at the official 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Germans had the strongest women’s team, especially in track and field. Even here, the idea of women in sport went against political beliefs of racial hygiene and femininity but it was more important for Germany to show the superiority of Nazi ideals at the world stage of international sport. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) would field a dominant women’s team for similar political reasons.

Medical Issues: Part 1

We might ask why there was such a huge push to exclude women from sporting competition in general and the Olympic games in specific. The most general reasons were sociological and cultural as it was simply not seen as appropriate for women to be involved in what were considered “masculine” activities. De Coubertin even stated that he did not want women to “…sully the Olympic games with their sweat.” Sport was simply seen as an exclusively male domain.

Even this idea came as much from cultural norms as the majority-held idea of women being the weaker sex, who needed more rest than men and who were less physically capable or resilient than men. This is ironic in that, as I discussed in Volume 1, women are actually far more likely to survive many threats such as famine than men and in many ways are far more physically resilient (the basic reason being that they had to be since they were tasked with the survival of the human race).

But this idea was taken even further as the medical experts of the day, almost universally men, promoted ideas and theories that were used to support the belief that women should be disallowed from sport. Broadly in medical literature at that time, men were considered the norm while women were considered deviant (used literally here as a deviation from the norm) or deficient. One prominent physician described female organs as “incomplete”, presumably implying that they had not completed their development into a penis.

Others developed various theories and ideas about how sport were potentially damaging to women, primarily in terms of their reproductive capacity. At the time, for fairly obvious reasons (i.e. their absolute crucial importance for survival of the human race), much of women’s medicine revolved around reproductive function and what impacted it. And sport was felt to, in one way or another, damage a woman’s potential ability to give birth. A number of different ideas were suggested relating to this.

One early idea, coming out of 19th century ideas of vitalism was that the body had a limited and non-renewable amount of stored energy to use over a lifetime. It was felt that by expending energy on sport, women would essentially deplete this energy permanently and be unable to bear or look after children.

It was also felt that the uterus was the most vulnerable and fragile part of a woman. One prominent German gynecologist believed that the uterus “…pulls at its sinews with every vigorous jumps a woman makes and may even tilt backwards”. The same individual wrote that “…each attempt to train the muscles of the female abdomen and pelvis lead to a tautening of the muscle fibers so that childbirth becomes much more difficult if not impossible.” Basically it was felt that exercise would render women infertile, an idea that persists to some degree even today.

Finally he opined that “too frequent exercise will lead to masculinization…the female abdominal organs wither and the artificially created virago is complete”. Since I doubt many know the word (I didn’t), virago is a term that currently means domineering or bad-tempered woman but which has an archaic meaning of female warrior or woman of masculine strength. Ignoring the abject absurdity of this in a biological sense, I have to think that many women in the modern era might look upon this term as more of a compliment (in the sense of female warrior) than an insult.

I’d point out, at this point, that nobody had actually studied or examined any of this directly. Rather, a bunch of (invariably male) doctors were making proclamations based on their inherent biases and assumptions. Essentially they had decided that women were the weaker sex, should not be involved in sport, and then came up with the rationale for those beliefs more or less after the fact. Even among female doctors, many of these ideas were still held to be true but once again it was based almost solely on theory rather than any sort of direct experimentation.

Interestingly, in the late 1920’s, German doctors actually took the time to examine female competitors at a sports festival and were unable to find any of the claimed negatives. By 1934, 10,000 girls and women had been examined with no support for any of the medical claims that had been made. Since that data did not fit the narrative of the day, these findings went more or less ignored and the idea that women were not only unsuited for sport but could be physically damaged by it had taken hold. Even if these ideas seem patently ludicrous in hindsight, the idea is entrenched enough that they often continue to this day.

The fear that women will become masculinized by sport, especially weight training, is still prevalent along with the idea that sports can damage their reproductive function. As a personal anecdote, when I worked at a wellness center in the mid-1990’s, a female member was told by her doctor that the Stairstepper would make her ovaries swell and I imagine that many female readers have come across these ideas in one form or another. That heavy lifting will make their ovaries fall out, or damage them reproductively, etc.

Women in Sport Part 2: The Post WWII Years

Following World War II, arguably the first major change in women’s sports involvement would occur. In 1953, IOC president Avery Brundage put up the idea of removing women’s competition from the Olympics completely while also advocating that they only be allowed in sports “appropriate” for them (whatever that means). As late as 1966, the IOC was still discussing whether women’s discus and shotput should be part of the games, presumably due to both events being considered “unfeminine”.

But these individuals were ultimately fighting a lost battle and the inclusion of women in the Olympic games was going to happen whether they liked it or not. Much of this was driven by the importance that the games had taken in terms of global politics. Just as with Berlin in 1936, the games were being increasingly used to promote the superiority of political ideology. Specifically the Soviet Union and Germany saw the games as a way to promote Communist and Socialist ideology (respectively) through sports performance. They didn’t care whether it was women or men winning medals and were just as supportive of their women’s teams as of their men’s (the GDR women’s team would be absolutely dominant in the late 70’s and early 80’s).

Since Western countries were not sending many women to the games at this point, it made sense for these countries to invest proportionally more in their women’s teams since it was relatively easier to win medals. In addition to pushing for greater inclusion of women overall, the Soviet Olympic Committee pushed for an increased number of events for women in order to increase the potential medals that they could win. Not only did this serve to cement the presence of women at the games, it would force Western countries to make a greater effort towards women’s sport to keep up with those countries on the global stage.

Even so, the changes were only relative with women’s involvement at the Olympics increasing from 9.5% in 1952 to 20.6% by 1976. It was a huge increase compared to the 5% or less from the early 20th century but women were clearly still vastly underrepresented.

A Bit of Trivia Regarding Exercise and the Menstrual Cycle

Before continuing with the discussion, I want to make readers aware of a bit of historical trivia that I think is interesting. Inasmuch as women were not going into sport on a global scale, there were countries with relatively more involvement and acceptance. And here there were concerns, primarily revolving around the menstrual cycle and whether or not exercising during menstruation was safe. Even female exercise advocates of the day argued that exercise during menstruation should be avoided although this was not based on anything more factual than the other medical theories about the topic.

But in the relatively sports oriented country of Australia, one of the single largest events for sportswomen occurred in the 1950’s with the introduction of the tampon who’s advertisements apparently provided some of the most accurate information regarding the topic yet available. One stated that women could now swim “at any time of the month.” and I have to wonder if the colloquial phrase “shark week” to describe women’s menstruation didn’t come out of the literal fear of being attacked by a shark while swimming in open water. But even with those changes, there were still many concerns that were being voiced regarding women’s involvement in sport overall.

Medical Issues Part 2

While at least some changes in sociocultural factors had occurred by the middle 1950’s with proportionally more women entering sports, it’s fair to say that, at least in the Western World, women were still not involved in sport. Whether this was due to a lack of interest or availability is not a question that I can answer but it sort of doesn’t matter in a practical sense. Simply, by the halfway point of the 20th century, women were still not involved on any major scale.

Of more importance is the medical concerns of the early 20th century were still prevalent with arguments about whether or not women could or should be allowed to engage in certain sports. I mentioned shot put and discus above but there was still some debate over whether women were suited to long-duration endurance sports such as the marathon in the sense of being able to physically complete it. The Boston Marathon, even then the largest event of its kind, actively banned women from competing in the event until 1972 and female competitors were often physically pulled from the course prior to this.

The marathon, along with long-distance cycling would not be added to the Olympics until 1984, nearly 100 years after men first ran the race. Amusingly, prior to the first Olympics, a Greek woman would unofficially complete the marathon distance in 4.5 hours prior to the game with a second, a 35-year old female mother of 7 completing it in 5.5 hours. Women were clearly capable of completing the distance and, ironically, women’s physiology is more suited to long-duration activities than men in many ways.

Similar ideas were held regarding sports involving physical contact including many team sports where it was felt that women might be damaged from the physical contact that was often involved. Women’s volleyball would not be added until 1964, basketball and handball in 1976 and hockey in 1980. Perhaps surprisingly, women’s soccer, not often thought of as a high-impact sport, would not be added to the Olympic games until 1996.

Women in Sport Part 3: Over in America

Leaving the topic of the Olympics briefly, I want to look at the changes that were occurring during this time in America specifically. As I mentioned above, it’s a topic I have actual data on and will assume is more or less representative of other Western countries. Certainly sport in America was huge and had been since the turn of the century but it was predominantly a male domain.  I grew up in the 70’s and it was simply the norm for boys to be involved in little league soccer, baseball, football and many other sports from a young age. I certainly did as did everyone else I knew. In contrast, outside of a few select sports, this was simply not part of most girl’s childhoods.

This can be made clear by looking at the statistics of high-school sports. In 1971, 295,000 girls played sport compared to 3.7 million boys, a 12.5:1 ratio. Above, I said that it’s often difficult to say if women’s involvement in sports is due to a lack of interest or accessibility but at least in this case, there’s a very good indication that it was the latter, that the lack of women in sport was due to a lack of accessibility more than any other factor. I say this as the passing of Title IX in 1972 would signal a step change for female involvement in sports and women’s involvement would increase drastically from that point forwards. Once girls had access to sports, they began to enter it in increasing numbers with each passing year.

Title IX was an amendment to the then current education laws and said, essentially that there could be no discrimination based on sex from any educational program or activity that received federal funds. While this wasn’t explicitly aimed at sports, inasmuch as the public school system in America is federally funded, it would have a tremendous impact in that area. Going forwards, schools would legally have to provide equal access to sports and this would have the long-term effect of increasing women’s sports involvements enormously.

Mind you, other changes were occurring during the time and there were likely changes occurring both interest, acceptance and acceptability throughout this time. First wave feminism had developed during the 70’s and a push for women’s equality was occurring throughout the country in all domains. By the late 1970’s, a number of high profile female athletes would begin to act as positive role models for girls and make it more socially acceptable for women to enter sport in the first place. This would create a cycle whereby girls who were interested in sports would finally have access to them and would then go on to become role models for the next generation of girls, increasing interest and involvement further.

And the changes that occurred in response to Title IX and the other societal changes are against borne out by looking at the statistics on high-school sports involvement. By the 1999-2000 school year, 2.7 million girls would be involved in sport compared to 3.8 million boys. The 1971 12.5:1 ratio had dropped to 1.4:1 in only 2 decades and it’s interesting to note the boy’s numbers were essentially unchanged. Rather, women were beginning to enter sports in increasingly larger numbers.

Similar changes were seen at the collegiate level (public colleges also being federally funded meaning that Title IX applied). In 1972, there were only 80,000 female collegiate athletes and this had increased to 150,000 by 1998-1999. I don’t know how this compares to the number of male collegiate athletes and will only comment that the reduction in total numbers from the high-school level most likely reflects the fact that most high-school athletes (female or male) don’t continue competing into college or beyond. That said, there is some indication that, due to inadequate training, girls tend to quit sport at an earlier age so there is more going on than just this one issue. I will come back to this later in the book.

Regardless of the specifics, the passing of Title IX, along with other sociocultural changes clearly opened the door for women to begin to enter sport in increasingly larger numbers and this trend would continue into the modern age. Accessibility more than inherent interest seemed to be what was holding women back.

Women in Sport Part 4: The Olympics at the Turn of the Century

By the end of the 20th century, it was clear that a step change had occurred with women’s involvement in sport. I mentioned some statistics for American high school and collegiate sport above but, by 1996, women would represent 35% of the athletes at the Olympic games (contrast this to zero at the first games, 11.5% in 1952 and 21% by 1980). At least some of this was due to some sports not having official women’s competition which prevented women from achieving true parity with men in terms of numbers. The inclusion of women’s wrestling and boxing was still being debated due to fears over the potential for physical damage to the athletes although wrestling would be added in 2004 and boxing in 2012.

But at least one factor at the Olympic level is related to culture. Because while 35% of the total athletes were women at this point, the actual percentage varied enormously by country. For example, at the Soul Olympics in 1988, the Spanish delegation was only 18% female compared to 35% of the total number of women at the games. Some of this is assuredly sociological in the sense of cultural beliefs about what are appropriate activities for women. But there were also economic factors at play. In general, the greater the greater the economic resources available to a country, the greater proportion of female athletes that will be present. This assuredly represents the fact that, right or wrong, the men’s events often carry more “weight” (in a viewership or global status sense) and countries with limited resources would logically allocate them where they feel that there are the most potential benefits to be gained politically.

It’s worth mentioning that this is not universal; the Chinese Olympic team is 46% female and has been since they appeared on the global stage. As with the Russians and Germans before them, this is clearly a politically motivated decision to promote the superiority of Communist ideals at the world stage. With women’s competition often being less strongly contested than the men’s, the Chinese clearly see the women’s events as a place to earn medals and status at the global stage.

For at least some time, some countries sent no women to the games. Typically these were Muslim countries and there was a brief push to have them excluded from the games entirely but this was never implemented as it was felt to be anti-Islamic. Of some interest, an Islamic Women’s World Games were held in 1993 and 1997 and men were both barred from competing and spectating. This would change going forwards as a number of Muslim women have entered and won Olympic medals. Even with those changes there will still likely remain cultural and financial reasons by which some countries still send male dominated teams going forwards and this may prevent women from ever being truly equally represented in the Olymipics. But overall, it’s clear that the inclusion of women at the games has increased to a staggering amount.

Medical Issues Part 3

Even at the turn of the century, at least some of the same medical ideas regarding women in sport persisted. Women’s pole vault, for example, was not added to the Olympic games until the year 2000. Amazingly, the reasoning for this seems to go back to a 1950’s physician who felt that if a woman were turned upside down it would damage their internal organs and reduce their ability to have children (2). While this sounds absurd to a modern audience, as late as 2005 the International Ski Federation argued that women should not ski jump, stating that “…it’s like jumping down from, let’s say about two meters on the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”



And that’s where I will cut it for today. Next week I will pick up with women’s sports in the modern era.